LIFE

TALES OF TWO KOREAS N. Korean Dissident Literature Sparks Global Interest

Unlike defectors’ memoirs exposing the cruel reality in North Korea, a collection of short stories written by an author still living in the North is drawing attention for its vivid literary depiction of the little-known everyday circumstances of the lives of its population. Translated and published in many foreign languages, “The Accusation” by Bandi offers a rare glimpse of North Korean creative writing.

In the eyes of the West, North Korean literature is not much more than a tool to praise and idolize the three generations of the Kim dynasty’s dictatorship. In fact, official North Korean literature is indeed based on the governing ideology of the supreme leader who sets out guidelines for the country’s writers in his annual New Year’s address.

Praise of the Regime and Criticism of Society
However, it is wrong to think that North Korean literature is singularly about saccharine flattery of the regime. The poet Choi Jinyi, who defected to South Korea in 1998, wants to disabuse people of this common misconception; there certainly is more than meets the eye. She used to engage in literary activities as a member of the Poetry Subcommittee in the Central Committee of the [North] Korean Writers’ Union. She said, “Many people in the South tend to believe that North Korean authors only write works praising the regime. On the surface, there seem to be many literary works glorifying the regime; that’s because the North is an authoritarian society. But in fact, those who write such works are regarded as extreme sycophants, ignorant of the most basic concepts of literature.”
When they are with trusted writer friends, at times even members of the union complain about the regime in a roundabout way, Choi said. One day, a writer who had written many poems eulogizing the regime’s founder, Kim Il-sung, and his son, Kim Jong-il, was criticized disapprovingly by his writer friends. They said, “Why are you writing so many poems in praise of the Kims, while often speaking ill of them in private?” He replied evasively, “I thought of my God, not the Kims, when I wrote the poems. So what?” It is said that the late leader Kim Jong-il once turned down a poem presented by the writers’ union after reading it, saying, “This gives me goosebumps.”
North Korean writers pay attention to various issues such as love in everyday life, choice of careers, divorce, the gap between urban and rural areas, or generational diversity. They are cautiously allowed to make critical comments on society, provided they maintain the intrinsic autonomy of literature and the socialist system.
Nam Dae-hyon’s “An Ode to Youth” (1987) and Paek Namryong’s “Friend” (1988) had no ideological undertones, so they were published in South Korea in the late 1990s. “An Ode to Youth” deals with the prevailing ethos of love, focusing on the worthy lives of young intellectuals, scientists, and engineers. “Friend,” a novel on divorce that had become a bestseller in the North, drew overseas readers’ attention after it was translated and published in French in 2011. The book was the first North Korean literary work ever to be published in Europe. “Hwang Jin-yi” by Hong Sok-jung, a historical North Korean novel published in the South in 2004, made a sensation in Pyongyang in 2002. Hong is a grandson of Hong Myong-hui (1888–1968; pen name Byokcho), the author of “Im Kkokjong,” a historical saga highly acclaimed and widely read in both Koreas.

The Pseudonymous Author Bandi
Dissident literature is taboo in the North. Anyone who writes a literary work explicitly criticizing the regime faces the certainty of incarceration in a political prison camp.
Under these circumstances, a work by a pseudonymous author who is known to be living in the North has recently attracted wide attention in many countries, including South Korea. “The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea” is a collection of short stories by a North Korean author who uses the name Bandi (Firefly) as his pseudonym. His fame grew after he was dubbed “the North Korean Solzhenitsyn” by a French author. Bandi is a pseudonym the author gave himself, vowing to shed light on the reality in his destitute country, “just as a firefly shines only in a world of darkness.”
Bandi is in a situation very similar to the fate faced by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008), the 1970 Nobel laureate in literature, in the former Soviet Union. Just as Solzhenitsyn did, Bandi opposes the political system of his own country and smuggled out his manuscripts to the outside world because it is impossible for him to publish his works in his home country. It was only after two of Solzhenitsyn’s novels “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” and “The Gulag Archipelago” exposed atrocities of the Stalinist dictatorship that the literature of the Soviet Union began attracting widespread international attention. In the same vein, it was only after Bandi’s “The Accusation” was published that dissident literature in North Korea began entering the spotlight in the outside world.
The seven short stories in this collection truthfully depict the harsh lives of people from various walks of life, groaning under the North Korean political system. Each story has a different theme and plot, but all are written under a single umbrella theme: the indictment of the rule of Kim Il-sung.
The first story, “Record of a Defection,” is an epistolary-style story about a man who grows suspicious of his wife who secretly takes birth control pills. He writes letters to his friend telling him of his frustration about the hereditary “caste system” and his decision to flee the country. “City of Specters” is a story about a family that was expelled from Pyongyang to a distant province “on blasphemy charges.” They had drawn the curtains shut at the window of their apartment because their three-year-old child had a seizure whenever he saw the portraits of Karl Marx and Kim Il-sung outside the window across the street. “So Close, Yet So Far” is a heartrending story about a son who fails to see his old mother at her deathbed. Although he manages to sneak into a train without a ticket, he is soon caught in a security check. In North Korea, nobody can travel anywhere without a travel pass.
The last story is “The Red Mushroom.” Calling the Workers’ Party headquarters a “poisonous red mushroom,” a journalist calls for the overthrow of the Kim regime, crying out, “Pluck up that poisonous mushroom from this land — no, from the Earth forever!” In a thematic sequence from the first story to the last, all seven stories in the collection reflect the tortuous progression of the author’s rebellion against the brutal regime — from passive resistance by defection to calling for the overthrow of the Workers’ Party, the cradle of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

‘North Korea’s Solzhenitsyn’
The manuscripts of these stories were smuggled into South Korea in 2013, in painstaking secrecy worthy of an espionage operation. A female relative of Bandi’s fled the North and arrived in Seoul. Several months later, she told Do Hee-yoon, secretary general of the Citizens’ Coalition for Human Rights of Abductees and North Korean Refugees, about the manuscripts. By sending a letter to Bandi through a Chinese friend visiting the North, Do asked him to deliver his manuscripts. After reading the letter, Bandi took out the manuscripts from a secret hiding place where he had stored them. To dodge luggage inspections, he hid them among the regime’s propaganda materials such as “The Selected Works of Kim Il-sung” and other such literature.
The coarse manuscript paper was in such a poor state that it looked as if it was from the 1960s or 70s. The yellowed paper showed the author must have pressed hard with a pencil when writing the stories a long time ago. The author himself had named the collection “The Accusation.” He had also created the pseudonym Bandi for himself. According to Do Hee-yoon, Bandi is a man born in 1950, who still lives in the North and is a member of the Korean Writers’ Union. There is speculation, though, that Do is hiding Bandi’s real identity to protect him. After many twists and turns, the stories were published in Seoul in May 2014.
In South Korea, few people paid attention to Bandi’s work. They merely took interest in the fact that the author was not a defector but still lived in the North and in how the manuscripts were smuggled out. Some people even suspected that the author was a fictitious person. Hence, the genuine worth and literary value of the work remained unappreciated.
In contrast to such a cold response in South Korea, foreign readers and critics began showing keen interest in the work when its French edition was published in 2016. Pierre Rigoulot, a French historian and North Korea human rights activist and the director of the Institute of Social History in Paris, called Bandi the “North Korean Solzhenitsyn.” In his foreword for the French edition of “The Accusation,” Rigoulot wrote, “It’s a small firefly, but its hope is big.” The book received substantial mass media coverage in France, by dailies like Le Figaro and Libération, radio stations France Inter, France Info and RFI, and magazines like Marianne. “I’ve translated many Korean novels into French. But I’ve never felt more intellectually ecstatic than while translating the stories by Bandi. The plots are splendid,” said Lim Yeong-hee, translator of the French version.

“A collection of short stories written under a pseudonym and smuggled out of North Korea is on its way to becoming an international literary sensation,” Britain’s The Guardian has reported. “Dissident tales from pseudonymous author Bandi, still living in the country, are very rare fiction to emerge from the secretive dictatorship.”

Publishers and human rights activists from various countries participate in a reading event of “The Accusation” at the Bridge of Freedom near Imjingak Pavilion south of the demilitarized zone in Paju, Gyeonggi Province on March 30, 2017.

“The Accusation” has been translated into 19 languages and was published almost simultaneously in 21 countries, including Britain, Canada, Italy, Japan, Germany, Sweden, and the United States, in March of this year, as well as, most recently, in Portugal. Its English translation was done by Deborah Smith, a British translator who shared the Man Booker International Prize for Fiction in 2016 with Korean author Han Kang for her translation of Han’s novel “The Vegetarian.” Smith’s translation of “The Accusation” was among the 10 PEN Translates Autumn 2016 winners chosen by the English PEN. In New York, Korean-Americans organized a campaign to nominate Bandi for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
“A collection of short stories written under a pseudonym and smuggled out of North Korea is on its way to becoming an international literary sensation,” Britain’s The Guardian has reported with effusive praise. “Dissident tales from pseudonymous author Bandi, still living in the country, are very rare fiction to emerge from the secretive dictatorship.”
The Millions, an online literary magazine, picked “The Accusation” as one of the most anticipated books of 2017. Publishers Weekly, an American book review magazine, commented, “Bandi gives a rare glimpse of life in the ‘truly fathomless darkness’ of North Korea.” American online bookstore Amazon said, “‘The Accusation’ is a vivid depiction of life in a closed-off one-party state, and also a hopeful testament to the humanity and rich internal life that persists even in such inhumane conditions.”
“[This] isn’t just a book with a good story behind it: it’s a collection of perfectly crafted novellas that, like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s work [from the former Soviet Union], speak with authority and truthto- power directness,” Hannah Westland, of Serpent’s Tail, the British publisher of “The Accusation,” said to The Guardian. “Bandi’s absurdist approach to satire is reminiscent of Ionesco’s ‘Rhinoceros,’ and his biting wit . . . reminds you of that other great Russian literary dissident, Mikhail Bulgakov.”
“Bandi is much different from contemporary South Korean writers from a technical point of view. We can’t simply determine his skill level, given that the official goal of North Korean literature is to show the greatness of the Kim family. But we should focus on his spirit of barehanded resistance to the regime,” said Kim Jong-hoi, a professor of Korean literature at Kyung Hee University in Seoul.
Amid the high acclaim abroad, the Korean version of “The Accusation” has been republished by another publishing house three years after its debut in South Korea. With its new cover, the new edition focuses on the literary value of the book by remaining as faithful to the original manuscripts as possible. Dasan Books, the publisher of the new edition, said, “Readers will find the new edition very different from its previous edition of three years ago. We believe this one has good marketability.”
It is worth noting that many literary works by North Korean defectors have also received more attention overseas than in South Korea. In 2012, poet Jang Jin-sung won the Rex Warner Literary Prize from Oxford University for his poetry collection “I Am Selling My Daughter for 100 Won,” which truthfully reveals the miserable lives of the North Korean people. “Dear Leader,” his collection of essays published in 2014, ranked 10th among the top selling books in Britain that year. Kim Yu-gyong signed a publishing contract with French publisher Editions Philippe Picquier for her novel, “Ingan Modokso” (Camp for Defiling Human Beings), whose original edition came out in 2016. She used to write stories in Pyongyang as a member of the Korean Writers’ Union. She escaped from the country in 2000.

Response by South Koreans
By comparison, South Korean readers are less responsive to North Korean literature than foreign readers, probably because they are less curious about society and life in the North. Many South Koreans hardly feel freshly informed and touched by North Korean literature that depicts the tragic reality of everyday life in the North, because they live in a standoff within spitting distance of North Korea across the demilitarized zone. On the radio, on TV, and in newspapers, they listen to, watch, and read about the lives of their erstwhile compatriots every day.
While Americans and Europeans take nuclear threats from the North or the possibility of war on the Korean peninsula very seriously, South Koreans have become somewhat jaded and benumbed by continual threats and crises. Consequently, many South Koreans tend to look at North Korean literature primarily from an ideological point of view, rather than appreciate the authors’ literary depiction of their real-life experiences.

Kim Hak-soon Journalist; Visiting Professor, School of Media and Communication, Korea University

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